When dyslexia blocked his path to college football, Maryland high school player took unusual route


Dave Sheinin (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Two years ago, Damion McIntosh received a message from a ghost. It came to his Facebook account, asking, “Do you know who this is?” McIntosh pondered the big, round face in the man’s pictures until slowly it dawned on him.

“I’m like: ‘Damn, that looks like my man Johnny Knott,’ ” recalled McIntosh, conjuring the name of a long-lost Kansas State football teammate. “I finally just said, ‘Where you been, man?’ “

A thousand miles away, Jarryn Avery let loose a big, honking belly-laugh. Chalk up one more unsuspecting victim finally let in on a decades-old secret. And once the truth was revealed, Avery would start to fill in the details:

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His name wasn’t John Knott; it was Jarryn Avery.

He wasn’t a former power-lifter who turned one season of football at a prep school in Maine into a scholarship to Kansas State. He was actually a former all-state lineman from Maryland who, after failing to qualify academically for the NCAA, assumed the identity of his best friend — John Knott — and, using Knott’s transcripts and some forged documents, went off to chase his NFL dreams.

Yes, there was a real John Knott. But instead of the 6-foot-5, 280-pound black man who showed up in Manhattan, Kansas, in January 1996 — touted by the National Recruiting Advisor as the “sleeper of the class,” because he was big and fast and nobody knew much about him — the real John Knott was actually a 5-9, 140-pound former high school teammate. And he’s white.

Remember, he would ask each old teammate or coach as they scanned their memories, when the promising freshman defensive lineman you knew as John Knott vanished into thin air one day in June 1996, at the end of spring semester, never to be heard from again? That was because he was scared of getting caught, and he was ready to give life another try as Jarryn Avery.

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It has been a wild journey, Avery would tell them, one worthy of a book or a movie — the way he overcame dyslexia, pulled off an identity fraud, nearly played major-conference college football under an assumed name, then ended the charade and made it to the NFL as himself.

In fact, Avery would tell them, he was writing a book — which was why he was reaching out to all the folks who knew him all those years ago as John Knott. Last month, he self-published a book called “4th and a Long Shot,” which he sells from a website of the same name, and said a movie version is in the works. He hopes his story can raise awareness for dyslexia and inspire kids with learning disabilities.

He’s also well-versed in self-promotion. A YouTube video posted in October, featuring practice footage of Avery in both of his identities, serves as a trailer for Avery’s book. In mid-November, the description of the video was changed to tout a book “the Washington Post is calling greatest ‘True’ sports stories [sic] of our time” — weeks before this article was published.

So you could excuse the former teammates and coaches, the ones duped by the scheme, for wondering: What, exactly, is true about Jarryn Avery’s story, and what isn’t?

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This part is true: In 1993 and 1994, Jarryn Avery was a highly sought-after recruit, an all-state lineman from North County High in Glen Burnie, Maryland, who attracted the attention of dozens of major college football programs, including Nebraska, Michigan State, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Avery still has the recruiting letters, encased in plastic sheeting in a three-ring binder at his mother’s house.

This part may be true: Avery suffered from dyslexia, he said, and was placed in special education classes as he made his way through the school system, which meant he did not accumulate the necessary coursework to qualify for the NCAA.

“The first school that told me was West Virginia, then Michigan State: ‘We don’t think we can get you qualified,'” Avery, now 38, said in a face-to-face interview a few weeks ago.” ‘You don’t have the lab sciences, the math, the English.’ . . . I was crushed.”

This part is true: In the summer of 1995, Avery, having failed to qualify academically for the NCAA, switched identities with his best friend in order to continue his pursuit of a football career. Under his alias, John Knott, he played one season of football at a prep school, Maine Central Institute, then enrolled at Kansas State, where he participated in spring football practice before leaving abruptly.

This part may be true: An older man, whom Avery refers to in his book as “Underworld,” hatched the idea of the identity switch and posed as the guardian for “John Knott” on recruiting trips. But “Underworld,” despite Avery’s promises that he would agree to be interviewed for this story as long as his identity was not revealed, never materialized.

This part is true: While at Kansas State, Avery met a tutor named Jeana Bolton, a senior who discovered his inability to read and helped him overcome his disability, and who later became the only person at Kansas State whom Avery told of his real identity. In an interview, Bolton, who got married and moved to Michigan shortly after graduating from Kansas State and is now known as Jeana Carrasco, corroborated Avery’s story.

“Having gotten to know him,” she said, “I knew the intent was not to be duplicitous or sinister. He just wanted a shot.”

This part is also true: Avery, after ditching Kansas State and returning to Maryland, resumed his career with a season at Potomac College, a two-year school in West Virginia, and three seasons at Rowan College in New Jersey, where he was a two-time Division III all-American.

This part is not completely true: Avery claims to have played in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2000, completing what would have been an uplifting story arc, but his agent, Curtis Stephens, said Avery was only invited to the Chiefs’ rookie camp on a tryout basis — a tryout that was cut short when Avery suffered a torn plantar fascia that essentially ended his football career. A Chiefs spokesman said the team has no record of Avery’s participation that summer.

This part, though, is probably true: Avery had NFL-caliber ability.

“He showed some toughness and some foot quickness. He served himself well,” said Jimmy Raye II, Kansas City’s offensive coordinator at the time, recalling Avery as a promising offensive lineman. “It’s a shame he got hurt.”

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There was one major problem with the plan for Jarryn Avery to turn into John Knott: The latter had precious little football capital built up. No major team was going to accept a recruit it had never seen or even heard of. He needed to make an intermediate stop at a prep school — ideally in some far-flung location where no one would recognize him as Jarryn Avery.

So he called around to prep schools across the country, concocting a story that he was a weightlifter named John Knott who was interested in trying his hand at football. He finally found a taker in Coach Todd Rundle at Maine Central.

“I said, ‘You’re 6-5, 280 pounds, and you want to try football?’ ” Rundle, now retired from coaching and living in Florida, recalled of that first conversation. “We had pretty much finished with recruiting, but I said, ‘Okay, come on up.’ “

It took about a week’s worth of practices for Maine Central’s coaches to suspect something was up with this John Knott kid. “There was no doubt he had played football before,” Rundle recalled. “You don’t just come out of nowhere and have those techniques and skills.”

One day, they cornered him in the weight room and asked point-blank: “Who the hell is John Knott?”

“That’s me, Coach,” Avery recalled answering. “That’s the name my mother gave me.”

The coaches were unconvinced, but the documents all checked out, and no one was too eager to send away this big-time Division I prospect who had already established himself as the best player on the team.

“So we just left it at that,” Rundle said. “If he comes in with a clean record out of high school, you don’t even think twice.”

College scouts were soon descending upon Pittsfield, Maine, to see the lineman who could run a 40-yard dash in less than five seconds, but John Knott had some specific parameters: He refused to entertain offers from schools in the ACC or Big East — which were too close to his Maryland home. And the Big Ten was out, because as Jarryn Avery, he had gone on a recruiting visit to Michigan State.

He took recruiting visits during the fall of 1995 to Ole Miss — where he was hosted by then-offensive line coach Hugh Nall — and South Carolina, where, he said, then-head coach Brad Scott did much of the recruiting himself.

“I don’t remember him,” Scott, now an assistant athletic director at Clemson, said recently when asked to recall a 1995 recruit named John Knott, who had committed briefly to South Carolina. “Sorry. We recruited hundreds of kids, and that was a long time ago.”

“I remember the kid,” said Nall, now retired and living in Georgia. “But I don’t remember all that much about him.”

Then, on a bit of a whim, John Knott agreed to make an official visit to a school in the middle of the Great Plains, where there was little going on in the fall besides college football, and where he was treated like a king.

And so, John Knott signed a letter of intent with Kansas State, enrolled in school for the spring semester in 1996, and packed his bags for a place he still — 18 years and an identity change later — wistfully refers to as “the Little Apple”: Manhattan, Kansas.

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Kansas State’s 1996 spring football prospectus paints John Knott, an incoming freshman offensive/defensive lineman, as a bit of a mystery, but one with vast potential:

“Athletic player,” his mini-bio states, “who was highly recruited despite playing just one year of organized football at Maine Central Institute, a prep school . . . Was a power lifter in high school . . . Runs a 4.8 40-yard dash. . . The National Recruiting Advisor lists him as its ‘Sleeper of the Class.’ “

The team was coming off a 10-2 season, and that 1996 recruiting class was one of the best ever at Kansas State under Coach Bill Snyder, who had arrived in Manhattan in 1989. Avery said he was recruited out of Maine by Mike Stoops, then the co-defensive coordinator, who envisioned the kid as a defensive tackle. Stoops, now the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, said through a Sooners spokesman that he doesn’t recall Knott.

Snyder, who after a brief retirement is the head coach at Kansas State again, was unavailable to comment for this story, according to an athletic department spokesman.

But Rod Cole, the head strength and conditioning coach at Kansas State at the time, remembers the kid who walked in the door as a freshman and was already one of the strongest players on the team.

“He was a good one, yes,” said Cole, now the director of strength and conditioning at Tarleton (Texas) State. “He definitely looked the part: 6-5, 280 pounds, with exceptional strength.”

Cole remembered something else about Knott, something he said no one at the time could quite put their finger on.

“There was always this air of mystery about him,” Cole said. “This kid comes from a prep school in Maine, which isn’t a common recruiting territory for Kansas State. He didn’t have much football background at that point. You just kind of wondered, ‘How did this kid wind up here?’ “

As spring football practice got underway, Knott made his mark almost immediately, earning practice reps as a freshman that typically went to upperclassmen. “You could tell he was about to do something big,” said McIntosh, a fellow freshman defensive lineman who was switched to offense as a senior and went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. “He was getting into the rotation and really holding his own.”

McIntosh recalled an early meeting of some of the freshman players and the tutor assigned to them by the athletic department, a 21-year-old senior named Jeana Bolton. “John sits up and says, ‘I don’t do no reading or writing,’ ” McIntosh said. “Everybody just kind of laughed. I thought, ‘This dude right here is off the chain.’ “

But Knott’s defiant, class-clown act masked a secret, one that Bolton quickly discovered when she asked him to read aloud a paragraph from a sociology text.

“I remember distinctly sitting across the table from him,” said Jeana Carrasco. “He looked down at the book, and looked up at me. And it hit me: He can’t read.”

With some prodding, Knott told her about his struggles in high school and the long road he took to gain NCAA eligibility — leaving out the identity switch — and Jeana started carving out extra tutoring time with him.

“He told me stories that broke my heart — his treatment in high school, how he tried to tell teachers he was struggling, but because of his athleticism, and frankly his race, it was just like, ‘Keep moving along,’ ” she recalled. “But I could see his effort and his hunger to learn.”

Bolton was already pregnant with her first child and had plans to move soon after graduation with her future husband. But eventually, Knott felt close enough to Bolton to entrust her with his deepest secret. It was getting late in the semester, the days creeping toward Jeana’s graduation and move to Michigan. One day, when she was dropping him off somewhere, he paused before getting out of her car and said there was something he needed to tell her.

“I’m not who you think I am,” Avery recalls saying. He said he told her a little bit about the circumstances — the insufficient NCAA qualifications, the forged documents. “I had to do something I’m not proud of in order to get to where I am now.”

Bolton was stunned. “I looked at him, and said, ‘So, what do I call you?’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘For now, you can’t call me anything except what you’ve been calling me.’ I remember sitting there in silence. I mean, what do you do with that?”

She had to process the mind-blowing fact that the sweet young man she knew as John was actually named Jarryn. She told him he had nothing to be ashamed of, and suggested he come clean to his coaches, and ask the university to help him overcome his disability.

He told her he appreciated the support, but he was thinking about going back home to Maryland.

“I think what he really wanted was a fresh start,” she recalled, “a clean break.”

By that point, just a few months into his time at Kansas State, the kid known as John Knott said he constantly feared his secret would be discovered. The ramifications were huge; he figured he would probably be kicked out of school and possibly prosecuted.

“You start to get a sixth sense — like, ‘Someone’s going to find me out,’ ” Avery recalled.

According to an athletic department spokesman, Kansas State has no record of Knott’s playing in the annual spring football game, but McIntosh, Jeana Carrasco and Avery himself all say that he did. You weren’t allowed to sack the quarterback in the game, which amounted to a glorified scrimmage, but Avery recalled at least one instance where he could have had a sack.

“I said, ‘Man, I can go to the pros being me,’ ” he recalled. “‘Let me get myself out of here before I get in some trouble.”

Near the end of May, Jeana left for Michigan to start a family, carrying with her Jarryn’s secret and more than a little gratitude for everything he had taught her about life.

“He changed my life,” she said, “as much as I changed his.”

Soon after that, Jarryn Avery, as he was soon to be known again, called his mother, Sylvia. They hadn’t spoken in a year, because Jarryn thought it was too dangerous to call home. He told her he needed money for a plane ticket. He was coming home.

He packed his belongings and asked a friend to drive him to the Kansas City airport, two hours away. It was the last anyone in Manhattan would see of John Knott.

“One day he was just gone,” recalled McIntosh. “Nobody knew where he went. We never heard where he went, or what happened to him. We were all like, ‘Where’s John at?’ It was a mystery. But it’s Manhattan, Kansas, you know? Some people just quit and go home.”

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“I’m a little nervous to be talking to you about it,” John Knott — the real John Knott — is saying over the phone. “My instinct is, ‘We got away with it. Just leave us alone.’ “

But because this is Jarryn’s story and because his name was going to be in it regardless — and because, after all, it happened nearly 20 years ago, when they were just teenagers — he agreed to talk about the fateful decision to allow his friend to use his identity to pursue his dream.

“All I knew was he was my best friend and my brother, and I would have done anything for him,” Knott said. “He asked me for it, and I thought about it for about 30 seconds and said, ‘I’ll get it done.’ If I had it to do over again, even with all the repercussions, I would have done it. No doubt.”

They first met as seventh-graders, bound by their shared love of football and their outsized dreams. “We used to dream about being in the NFL,” Knott said. “We’d tell each other that we’d see each other in the league. I knew when we first met, he was going to be something special.”

But while Knott stopped growing, Avery did not. And not only did he grow into a mountain of a man, he did so without losing speed and agility.

“He was twice my size — around 280 pounds — when he was a senior,” Knott said. “And he was also faster than me.”

Once Avery went off to Maine and then Kansas State, using Knott’s identity, the real John Knott never heard from him, and there was never a trace of evidence that would implicate Knott in the scheme — with the exception of a bill from Kansas State that arrived once in the mail at Knott’s house. Luckily, Knott was home and was able to grab the bill and dispose of it before his parents saw it.

As a precaution, he stopped watching college football, even though he loved it like nothing else, because he was afraid Jarryn’s picture was going to pop up on the screen with Knott’s name under it and give away the secret. He was scared to death of his parents finding out.

So his parents never knew?

“That’s right,” Knott said.

When did he finally tell them?

He laughed at the question. “Yesterday,” he said.

When Avery came back to Maryland, he and Knott resumed their friendship, but it was never quite the same as when they were in high school.

As he rebuilt his football career at Potomac College, and then at Rowan, Avery still lived in constant fear of being recognized as John Knott. Once, while at Rowan, he was lining up for a snap when he spotted a familiar face on the other side of the line of scrimmage — a former teammate from Maine Central. Avery avoided the guy as best he could, and hoped that his dark, tinted visor did the rest.

“I always had a tinted visor. You couldn’t see my eyes,” Avery said. “And my helmet? That never came off till I was in the locker room.”

Avery wasn’t the only one scared of getting caught. His mother was terrified for him, going so far as to burn all the Kansas State artifacts and John Knott documents she could find in her son’s possessions.

“The whole thing just gave me the creeps,” she said of her son’s unusual route. “I was never on board with that. I wanted all evidence of it gone.”

– – –

Avery went undrafted in 2000, eventually accepting an invitation to the Chiefs’ rookie camp.

According to Avery, a teammate stepped on his foot during a practice, causing the torn plantar fascia. Stephens, his agent, said the Washington Redskins expressed some interest in Avery, but were reluctant to assume his medical treatment, which was being paid by the Chiefs. And anyway, it is doubtful Avery would have ever gotten back on the field. His injury made it difficult to walk for months, and he couldn’t wear a dress shoe on that foot for years.

“After I hurt my foot,” he said, “I knew it was over.”

Avery eventually turned to real estate and now owns 18 properties, he said, making a good living off the rental income. He and his live-in girlfriend have two sons, 2 and 5 years old.

He has had a few brushes with the law since his football career ended. Though most of the charges didn’t stick, he remains on probation for a 2012 handgun charge in Baltimore.

In the course of his research for the book, which Avery said he wrote with the help of a ghostwriter, he began reaching out to the people in his past.

“A couple of years ago he called and told me [the truth], and said he was getting ready to write a book,” said Rundle, his prep school coach. “It’s certainly unique. I’ve heard of kids taking the SATs for an athlete, but never somebody taking another kid’s identity and going to school. Never. It took quite an imagination for a kid — and then to pull it off. . . . He had a dream, and he was going to fight to get there. It’s nice to see a success story like that.”

Other interviewees only got half the story. When Cole, the former Kansas State strength coach, got a call from “John Knott” a couple of years ago, he offered his recollections of the young man’s impressive physical tools, but was never told about the identity switch. Cole later learned that part of the story from a reporter.

“It kind of makes sense now,” Cole said.

When Avery tracked down Jeana Carrasco in Michigan by phone, “It was like time just evaporated,” she said.

She already knew the story of the fake identity, but as they talked, Carrasco said she had something to tell Avery. Remember the baby she was pregnant with when she left Manhattan?

He’s now a teenager named Matthew — Matthew Jaryn, the middle name, with a slightly altered spelling, chosen by her and her husband to honor one of her old friends, a young man she thought she was teaching how to survive college classes, but who wound up teaching her just as much about how to chase your dream, no matter the cost.

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